If theater is a study of bodies in space, then the medium has so far largely elided studying how Covid’s ultimate iconography fundamentally altered the ways that modern bodies relate to each other.
If our faces are physical windows into our beings, then how the hell has a form defined by the study of bodies in space largely ignored the effect of how masks obscure a primary means of expression and evaluation.
Now, I’m not over here calling for EVERY actor in EVERY show to partially hide their visage. BUT, I’ve seen damn near every production to grace major New York stages in the Covid era, and the only one to heavily feature masks — Classic Stage’s revival of Assassins — treated them more as symbolic reflections of character, as opposed to actively exploring how they muck up everyday behavioral dynamics.
Again, if theater is equipped to be a study of bodies in space, then theatermakers are doing audiences a disservice by refusing to wrestle with how masks upended our traditional equations of understanding through observation and presentation.
Yes, I’m sure most of us would prefer to forget the mundane horrors of the last two years…but shouldn’t SOME art delve into our freighted horrors?
Last year’s movie Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn revels in such diagnosis. How the characters — and, you know, all of us — navigate mask-wearing says a whole lot about who they/we are. And isn’t that one of art’s functions, to study the relationship between outward appearance and inner truth?
Thus far, masks have entered the scene only peripherally. Most shows have opted to go with Robert O’Hara’s approach in his revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night: we see characters remove masks as soon as they walk back in the house…or, if they’re preparing to leave, they’ll have their mask(s) ready on their person, in their back pocket, dangling off their wrist, strapped to their arm, etc. While these tics undoubtedly resonate for anyone who’s lived through the last few years, they’re more tangentially suggestive than directly analytical.
And then there are examples like Epiphany, now playing at Lincoln Center. One character insists on greeting everyone with elbow-bumps instead of handshakes and hugs, the same character who nervously questions how many other (potentially-diseased??) people were invited to cram into this claustrophobic party with him.
But then, any further mention of Covid falls by the wayside.
Granted, both texts predate Covid, so it’s unfair to expect explicit dialogue on the subject. Given the long gestation and developmental periods of new plays, it’ll take a few years for playwrights to cook up actual reckonings with the mask epoch, if they’re even interested in revisiting a past (are masks past?) that most are trying to move on from.
But adding masks to ANY production, even/especially revivals, could open up new layers of behavioral-character interpretation. And considering how central masks have been to the history of theater, the phenomenon feels ripe for onstage dissection.